Test matches against Australia have and always will provide cricketers with the ultimate challenge. England may have dominated early Ashes confrontations, and the West Indies did rule the cricketing world in the late Seventies, Eighties and early Nineties, but in the 133 years that Test cricket has been played, no team comes close to matching Australia's win ratio of almost 50 per cent. The quality of cricketer produced Down Under is consistently high, and that is why contests against Australia continue to provide opponents with an accurate reading of where and how good they are as individuals and a team.
My Test career provided a perfect example of this. On debut against Allan Border's underrated side at Edgbaston in 1989 I was strong, fresh and young and I took 4 for 63 in 33 overs in Australia's first innings. Steve Waugh, bowled off stump by a nip-backer, was my first Test scalp, and by performing on a stage of that magnitude I proved to myself and showed the cricketing world that I could handle the unique pressures the Ashes have to offer.
It was completely different during the Boxing Day Test of 1998 at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. I had taken 54 wickets against the West Indies, South Africa and Sri Lanka in the calendar year and was ranked the third best bowler in the world when I travelled to Australia for the 1998/99 Ashes. But those performances did not carry much weight on the hard, flat, grassless pitches of Australia, where I was shown little respect by Steve Waugh's all-conquering side.
The manner in which Michael Slater, Justin Langer and the Waugh brothers went after my bowling highlighted the shortcomings of a 33-year-old seamer with a few too many miles on the clock. It did not matter how hard I tried, against the very best; I was overcooked and they knew it. Dean Headley's youthful body won the Melbourne Test but I never wore my England whites competitively again. For the |selectors, that was that.
With Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath, Adam Gilchrist, Matthew Hayden and Justin Langer now collecting their pensions, this Australian touring squad does not possess the stellar names of the side that visited these shores four years ago – but it should not be underestimated in any shape or form. Ricky Ponting's party contains many high quality and highly motivated cricketers.
It was complacency by England along with raw, rugged, ruthless Australian talent that kick-started the rise in Aussie fortunes in 1989. England, under Mike Gatting, had won the Ashes in 1986/87 and before a ball had been bowled in the 1989 series the English media had written off the tourists' chances of regaining the "little urn". Figures such as Merv Hughes, Dean Jones, Steve Waugh, Geoff Lawson, Ian Healy, Terry Alderman, Mark Taylor and Geoff Marsh were being belittled at
every opportunity. The approach provided the sports pages of newspapers with good copy for a couple of weeks but the result of the first Test at Headingley, a 210-run victory for Australia, provided a proud nation with the green shoots for which it had been desperately searching.
Australia's cricketers had always been known for the uncompromising way they played, but in 1989 they became nastier and more ruthless. In the past, Ian Botham had hoodwinked the Aussies by being sociable with them off the field and then unbelievably competitive on it. Australia's cricketers struggled to come to terms with Botham's approach. Border, a victim of the tactic, had seen enough, instructing his side not to fraternise with the opposition on or off the field. The hard-nosed, fuck-you, one-in-all-in approach flummoxed England, taking them by surprise. It is a policy that remains in place.
Walking out to bat against Border's side was not an enjoyable experience. As a tail-end batsman, you felt like an injured impala surrounded by a hungry pack of hyenas. Healy, standing behind the stumps, was constantly in your ear while Hughes, Alderman and Lawson were in your face. They did not just want to beat you; they wanted to humiliate you.
Under the excellent guidance of Michael Vaughan and Duncan Fletcher, England adopted a similar approach in 2005 and it brought unforgettable rewards. Will England under Strauss attempt to adopt a similar policy this time round? I would not bet against it – Strauss is not the type of character who takes a backward step.
Being confrontational takes little skill or class but it is empty and futile unless you can back it up with performances on the field. Part of the greatness of Hughes, Alderman, Lawson, Warne and McGrath was that they verbally provoked England but rarely looked foolish. This was because they consistently performed to an extremely high standard.
Yet it is not just the quality and intensity of the cricket played that makes Ashes series the toughest an Englishman can play. What takes place off the field is daunting too. The hype that precedes the first Test of each series is unbelievable. It is as though the two nations are going to war. As a player it is easy to be emotionally shot before a ball is bowled. Because of this it is best not to become embroiled in the phoney war – if you can avoid it.
I did not play in the opening Test in 1989, but I did on England's 1990/91 tour Down Under. Never in my Test career do I recall being more nervous than I was at the old Gabba ground in Brisbane in November 1990. When bowling I was OK because I felt I had some control over what was taking place. But I struggled to watch a ball England faced when batting. In an attempt to get away from the action I would lie on a bed in the physiotherapists room with my Discman on, a towel over my head and the door shut, trying to get away from it all. Despite my efforts I never fell asleep – the constant roar of a huge crowd made it impossible. Was the noise in reaction to a wicket or runs? At times it was impossible to tell the difference.
As Australia's aura and reputation grew in 1989, England's fell, reaching an all-time low when many of our top cricketers chose to abandon representing their country to play on a lucrative rebel tour of apartheid South Africa. I will never forget standing tearfully in the communal showers at Old Trafford listening to Border's patriotic team celebrate regaining the Ashes while English cricket slipped in to the abyss. How I longed to be part of what was taking place in the visitors dressing room.
In the wake of such contrasting emotions a huge psychological gap developed between the teams. Australia became a closer, prouder and even more patriotic cricket side, with the "baggygreen" cap developing powers similar to those of Clark Kent's cape. English cricket, meanwhile, had shown its selfish colours. Our cover had been blown and it allowed the hard, chiselled faces of Border, Taylor and Steve
Waugh to look down their noses at the poms. England's cricketers knew it too. We could make the right noises before an Ashes series, and trade sledges out in the middle, but they knew they had the higher moral ground. An inferiority complex developed and we knew, deep down, that they were better than we were.
By now every young boy in Australia wanted to wear the baggygreen and a magnificently structured and competitive domestic game gave these youngsters the chance to achieve their goal. The system began producing one outstanding cricketer after another.
In the mid-Nineties the first balls of consecutive Ashes series highlighted the pressure England's cricketers felt, with Slater |cutting nervous deliveries brutally for four. On the 1994/95 tour Phillip DeFreitas was the guilty bowler and as the ball raced to the cover boundary you could sense the England |players looking at each other and thinking "we're knackered here". It is hard to believe Stephen Harmison's opening delivery in the 2006/07 Ashes, which went straight to Andrew Flintoff at second slip, did not stimulate similar emotions.
In the past 20 years, with the exception of 2005, Australia have preyed on England's frail emotional state. On tours of Australia this has been backed up by a media that has repeated the behaviour of its English counterpart in 1989, by pouring scorn on every England side that toured. The disrespectful attitude transferred to the terraces and the fans in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide
showered you with verbal abuse from the moment you walked out on to the field.
Footballers, unless your name is Eric Cantona, and rugby players rarely get close enough to the vitriol that emits from the stands, and the frantic nature of those sports does not allow a player to really hear what is said. In cricket, however, a fast bowler spends almost half his life standing within five yards of spectators. The flak you cop is unimaginable. I wish I had a pound for every time I was called a "loser" or asked "Who's shagging your wife while you're over here? I hear she cooks a good breakfast." During the opening Test of the 1998/99 Ashes I was fielding in front of a dozen or so Queenslanders at the Gabba, where I was being called every name under the sun. Eventually I had enough and walked over to the group, took my cap off, pointed to it and said: "Take a look boys, this is an international cap and it is as close as any of you are ever going to get to one." Within five minutes Healy top edged a catch to me, which I dropped directly in front of the group. The urge to dig a hole and disappear – or do a Cantona – has never been so immense.
Ashes series, especially in Australia, are not only physically demanding; they test you mentally too. Each Test is a major event, receiving an enormous amount of publicity. Some players cope with the attention better than others but even the best get worn down by the intensity of the battles. During the course of a five-Test series, phobias against individual opponents can arise and modern coverage means that techniques are scrutinised with an electron microscope.
Other than penalty shoot-outs in football, few sports offer the head-to-head confrontations that cricket does. And very few sports test an individual over such a long period of time as Test cricket. Most sporting contests involve playing an opponent and then moving on to a different one. Such scheduling prevents players from developing these deep-rooted psychological problems against an individual member of the opposition.
Premier League defences come up against Rooney twice a year but in the next three months – if the post-Ashes T20's and one-dayers are counted – Strauss could well be pitted against Australia's Mitchell Johnson on 19 occasions. The contest can go one way or the other. Alderman famously got the better of Graham Gooch in 1989, and McGrath tormented Michael Atherton throughout his entire career.
England can look back at the 2005 Ashes for confidence and the way in which Andrew Flintoff and his fellow bowlers reverse-swung the ball and bullied Ponting's batsmen. James Anderson, Stuart Broad, Graeme Onions, Ryan Sidebottom and Flintoff will need to repeat the feats of Matthew Hoggard, Stephen Harmison and Simon Jones. Over the next two months, Strauss and the England selectors will find out a great deal about the cricketers they have in their side. From and England point of view, let's hope these discoveries are positive.
Read Angus Fraser throughout the Ashes, exclusively in The Independent